Lunch with Zohab Zee Khan

From marginalised minority kid to slam poetry pro, Zohab Zee Khan tells Mark Dapin he has found his niche.

It is rare for a public figure, when invited to lunch by a metropolitan newspaper, to choose to eat at a suburban kebabery. But Australian Poetry Slam champion Zohab Zee Khan was born in Auburn, and grew up working in his father’s kebab shop in Griffith, NSW. So, on a sunny, bustling Tuesday, Khan suggests we meet at Auburn’s New Star Kebabs, the Turkish restaurant most often cited by foodies when, in isolated moments of honesty, they admit that chargrilled meats actually taste a lot better than line-caught jus in single-origin foam. And you get more of them on your plate.

Khan, a fourth-generation Pakistani-Australian, is a towering figure in Australian slam poetry, partly because he is so tall. He stands at 198 centimetres and would be instantly noticeable even if he weren’t wearing a ferociously gaudy shirt, a pointy beard, and ringmaster’s moustache with carefully waxed tips. In Khan’s milieu, the slam poetry contest, original verses are performed on stage in competition with other poets and judged by the audience in a string of local heats which culminate in the national final. Last year, the final was held at Sydney Opera House, and Khan beat about 1000 other contenders for the national title.

In performance, he prowls and growls and hisses and grins, bends his body like a coat-hanger into various unlikely shapes, and seems to live his poems through his limbs.

Khan says his great-grandfather came to Australia from rural Punjab and traded wool and cotton in beef country in northern NSW. The family travelled around. “That was home for them,” he says, “all those little tiny towns. They’d just move from one place to another, trading and making their fortune.”

Khan’s father was born in Casino, NSW. (There is a Khan Road in nearby Gurranang, and a memory of a great uncle, Jack Khan, as a champion buck-jumper.) He moved to Auburn with his Pakistani-born wife, but left the suburb when Khan was five years old.

“This was always the spiritual home,” says Khan, gesturing to Auburn and its passing parade of Indians, Somalis, Lebanese and Chinese. “I was an outsider when I went to the country, but Auburn was this place in my head. When I come back, I don’t necessarily fit in, but it’s nice to be around.”

Auburn had a mosque, and a small Pakistani population, but his father missed the open spaces where his was the only subcontinental face. “I think he felt more at home being the minority,” says Khan. “He felt more at home being the person that was different. It almost makes you feel like a rock star.”

They moved to Yenda, a small town about 16 kilometres outside Griffith. His mother, who grew up in Pakistan, found it tough to adapt, says Khan. “She enjoyed Auburn, she enjoyed having her extended family around her, her culture and her community. I think that lack really stuck with her. I don’t think Mum’s ever really felt Australian, and she doesn’t feel Pakistani. She’s, like, stuck in limbo.”

Yenda had a population of fewer than 1000 people, and a primary school with 85 students. Khan has an older sister and a younger brother but, aside from them, “I was Yenda’s minority,” he says. “Some teachers were ridiculously racist, other teachers were great, role models.”

He feels he was denied opportunities. “It would always be the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid who would get the first pick,” he says. “And then it would be the other kid, and then it would be the other kid, and then it would be the other kid, and then – wait a minute – why am I still here? I remember when we got to paint big curtains in our class, with Disney characters and things like that. Guess who was the last person to get to pick what character they wanted to do? This guy. Everyone else got Goofy and f—king Mickey Mouse. I got Franklin the Turtle.”

His father had a business as an agricultural labour contractor, and also opened the kebab shop that became the only place in Griffith to stay open after 1am. “Once the local pubs closed, there was a line out the door,” says Khan. As a boy, he ate “hundreds” of kebabs. Yet his appetite for them does not appear to have diminished. He orders the mixed grill of adana kebab, lamb sheesh and chicken sheesh, on a plate with Turkish bread and salad, with garlic sauce, hummus and chilli. I choose a slightly smaller dish, without the lamb sheesh.

It’s all delicious, of course. This is real food – roadworkers’ food, warriors’ food, er … poets’ food. And miraculously, none of it seems to get stuck in Khan’s beard.

When Khan was at school, “as the minority, there was a lot of reflection time”, he says, “a lot of realising ‘who the f— am I?’ Everyone has that crisis, I just had that as a preteen.

“I had that crisis as an eight, nine, 10-year-old,” he says, “as a 13, 14, 15-year-old. My entire life was ‘what the f— am I doing?’ And when you don’t really know where you fit in, at first you try to fit in everywhere. And then you’re like, ‘Screw that,’ because that’s not working, you’re just making things worse.”

He had to find his own way to grow up. “No-one was necessarily peer-pressuring me into anything,” he says. “They didn’t necessarily want me to be a part of them, so I was like, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do’.”

He chose writing and rap music. “I just threw myself into hip-hop,” he says. “I loved every aspect of it.” The only other hip-hop fan in Yenda was a Tongan boy, who briefly constituted Yenda’s second ethnic minority. “He came in for about a year,” says Khan. “I became friends with him, then he left. That was a nice year. To have a friend.”

Khan did well at school, and won a place at Charles Sturt University, studying human resource management in Wagga Wagga, NSW. “Wagga was where I first branched out,” he says, “and almost recreated myself. I wasn’t just the ethnic kid, the token brown kind. There was all these kids from different backgrounds. And I gravitated towards them initially. I was, like, ‘Ah! I could be one of you!’ And it wasn’t until I got to university that I discovered my own faith, and I quickly became the president of the Islamic Association at university and organised all these events.”

Islam gave him “a sense of identity”, he says, “and that’s what’s so appealing. With that sense of identity, anything that you serve to me, as long as it gives me this brotherhood, I’m gonna take. And I think that’s where the problem lies with radicalisation and extremism. You provide people with a community. For the first 18 years of my life, living as a minority, I didn’t feel important, I didn’t feel special, and all of a sudden, here was I … president! And you get that sense of power within your own community. But if you stay within your own hub, you live within this bubble world where everything makes sense because you said it makes sense.”

Khan “didn’t necessarily move away from that”, he says. “It’s more that I broadened my horizons.”

In Wagga, he laid down his first hip-hop track, with his new best friend, another Pakistani who’d grown up in the country. Together, they would go out into town and try to have a good time, but they could not escape surveillance by the local Pakistani community. “There would always be a Pakistani auntie who’d drive past at the wrong time and go, ‘Look what they’re up to. They’re talking to girls,'” says Khan. “She’d go home and call your mum, and dob on you. That was our first ever song – a cuss song on aunties.”

Their sound evolved into “our gangster-rap equivalent”, he says. It was “essentially empowering ourselves as Pakistanis, like, ‘We are legends!’ – which is bullshit.” They embraced the world “Paki” in the way US hip-hoppers appropriated “nigga”. At the time, he was still president of the Islamic Association.

“It was a transference,” he says. From religion to …. “nationalism,” he admits, and laughs. “It was an absolute joke. But it’s a journey. It’s how you learn. As I say it, it all sounds ridiculous.”

In Wagga, he says, racism felt more intense. “You would get stared at like nothing,” he says. “I’ve got a radar for ‘hate eyes’. I can sense them a mile away. And that was every single day in Wagga. It didn’t make sense to me. Someone calling you a terrorist, someone telling you to go back to your own country: that happens a lot. I started calling people out on it.

“Every single time something happened, I’m, ‘No, no. Come here. Let’s have a chat. Let’s have a yell.’ Usually, they’d back off, because they don’t expect it. They’re, like, ‘Whoooah. I thought you were supposed to take it. You’re a brown kid. You’re supposed to be in your place. This is me just putting you further in your place.’ It’s only when you step out of that place that people get baffled and confused.

“I was in Parramatta Westfield,” he says, “just walking along, minding my own business, and there was this guy – hate eyes in the distance – and he just locked onto me and, as he walked past, he mouthed the words ‘F— you.’ And out of complete instinct – I didn’t think about it – I just went, ‘Rooowwwwf!’ I barked at him. And he was like, ‘What the? This isn’t supposed to happen.'”

In time, he moved away from rap and into slam. He discarded his backing music and, “Rather than being average at bad quality hip-hop, I was brilliant at a capella spoken word poetry,” he says. He abandoned his degree, took a job at a call centre in Wollongong, and vowed it would be the last place he would ever work for anyone else. He quit last year, and has been touring continually ever since. As Australian slam champion, he has been invited to slams in Indonesia, New Zealand and China.

He lives in Annandale with his fiancee, Lammise, an international-relations student at Sydney University, and his store of moustache wax. He insists his curled moustache tips “just happened like that one day”.

“I hadn’t shaved for a while,” he says, “and I was just playing around with it, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a thing.’ And I went to China the next week, and I was, like, ‘I’m going to wax it.” And the Chinese loved it, because they can’t grow facial hair, stereotypically speaking. And I’ve never had so much positive feedback to anything ever in my entire 20-plus years on earth.”

He fingers his whiskers. “This is staying for a while,” he says.

Life and Times

1987 Born Auburn, NSW
1993 Moves to Yenda, NSW
2005 Attends Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga
2009 Enters his first NSW Poetry Slam
2011 Gets through to his first national final
2012 Becomes NSW spoken-word champion
2013 Moves to Wollongong to work in a call centre
2014 Moves to Sydney to become a full-time artist
2014 Wins Australian Poetry Slam
2015 Publishes a book of poems, I Write